The Daunte Culpepper Plan Is the Best Trajectory for J.J. McCarthy

Photo Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to quarterback development, there’s one plan that stands above the rest.

The Kansas City Chiefs selected Patrick Mahomes in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, and unlike many franchises, they took a patient approach. Mahomes sat behind Alex Smith and made just one start in the 2017 season before taking over the job (and the souls of every defensive coordinator in the NFL) in 2018.

We all know what happened from there. Mahomes became the quarterback deity he is today, the guy every general manager views as the gold standard of quarterback development. However, the Minnesota Vikings have their own quarterback development success story, which could happen again with J.J. McCarthy.

It goes back to the last time the Vikings had the 11th-overall pick entering the NFL Draft. Dennis Green was armed with two first-round picks, and the quarterback class was full of talented arms. When Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb, and Akili Smith were selected with the first three picks, the Vikings waited patiently until drafting Daunte Culpepper with pick 11.

Culpepper was a mobile quarterback with a big arm and compared favorably to McNabb. However, draft pundits still viewed him as a bit of a project.

“[Culpepper] has a strong arm, touch on the deep ball as well,” Mel Kiper Jr. said on ESPN’s draft-night broadcast. “Not just a thrower, he’s also a pitcher. And I think, when you look at the accuracy, he completed a high percentage of his passes. Didn’t have tremendous wide gaps to throw to and he certainly played against some top teams. He sees the field fairly well, but his vision on the move is something he needs to work on. … I think the difference between Culpepper and McNabb is that McNabb had that great vision to pick out those third and fourth receivers on the move.”

With a 6’4”, 255 lb. frame and a big arm, Culpepper may have succeeded if Dennis Green put him into the starting lineup. However, Green also had Randall Cunningham and Jeff George on the depth chart to ensure Culpepper got a full redshirt year in 1999.

He didn’t attempt a pass during his rookie season but stepped into a juggernaut when he took over in 2000. With Cris Carter and Randy Moss at receiver, Robert Smith at running back, and Todd Steussie, Matt Birk, and Korey Stringer anchoring the offensive line, Culpepper had plenty of help on the field. But he also had Green’s help off of it; Green had just coaxed a career year out of Cunningham in 1998 and a renaissance year from George in 1999.

Culpepper thrived in his first year as a starter, leading the Vikings to an 11-2 start and a spot in the NFC Championship game. (Don’t ask about what happened there.) However, Green didn’t get the opportunity to see Culppepper’s development. Culpepper struggled with injuries, and the team battled turmoil on the way to a 5-11 season in 2001.

In meaningful ways, off-the-field turmoil capped Culpepper’s time in Minnesota. Red McCombs treated the Vikings franchise like a car from the junkyard he was looking to restore for profit, and Mike Tice and Scott Linehan oversaw Culpepper’s development. After leading the league with 23 interceptions in 2002, Culpepper led the Vikings to the verge of another playoff berth in 2003 (again, don’t ask what happened).

That’s what fans think of when they remember Culpepper. The Vikings were only an 8-8 team – once again due to what was happening off the field. However, Culpepper carried the team with an NFL-high 4,717 passing yards, 39 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. If it weren’t for Peyton Manning’s NFL record 49 touchdowns, Culpepper could have won the MVP Award.

It looked like Culpepper was about to take off at age 27. But once again, the off-the-field drama took over. The Vikings traded Moss to the Oakland Raiders the following offseason, and Culpepper slogged through seven starts before suffering a multi-ligament knee injury. The injury effectively ended Culpepper’s career. He spent time with the Miami Dolphins, Raiders, and Detroit Lions but never played more than eight games in a season.

Still, Culpepper’s development pales compared to what the Chiefs did with Mahomes. Like Culpepper, Mahomes played in a system many believed would hurt him in the pros and had some elements of his game to work on coming out of Texas Tech. But while bad decisions and poor footwork were the main arguments against him, most agreed that the landing spot was one of the best places Mahomes could ask for.

“There’s no doubts there are concerns about Patrick Mahomes as far as his development,” ESPN Draft analyst Louis Riddick said during the 2017 NFL Draft. “He has some things he’s going to have to work on, but there’s no better place to go than the Kansas City Chiefs.”

Like Culpepper, Mahomes landed in a fantastic infrastructure. The Chiefs had started to put foundational pieces in place, including Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Kareem Hunt, who led the NFL in rushing during his rookie year. However, Andy Reid was the one constant.

Reid developed McNabb after taking him eight spots ahead of Culpepper in 1999 and followed in the same footsteps Green did to find his franchise quarterback. Reid put Alex Smith in the best position to succeed in his first five years in Kansas City and bought enough time to find his franchise quarterback a few years later.

Not even one of the worst ownership groups in the NFL could stop Reid and Mahomes. The Chiefs have won three Super Bowls and been to four since selecting Mahomes in 2017.

You could use other examples, such as Jordan Love and Aaron Rodgers sitting for three years behind their predecessors in Green Bay. However, the Mahomes and Culpepper situations are the most similar to what McCarthy could see in Minnesota.

McCarthy’s arm strength has impressed beat reporters coming out of Michigan, but he needs to improve his touch. With other nuances, such as still-in-progress footwork and a complicated offensive system that Kirk Cousins needed half a season to learn, McCarthy admitted there is plenty to work on heading into his first training camp.

“I would evaluate it as every single day, I’ve just been focusing on new things to get better and progress on from the last day,” McCarthy told reporters last week. “I always try to be better tomorrow than I am today. And, of course, growth…it’s not a straight line. It goes up, it goes down, it goes up, it goes down, but I’m just trying to maintain that trajectory of going up and up. And I feel like I’m on that road and just attacking every day with the growth mindset and it’s doing me well so far.”

Like Culpepper and Mahomes, McCarthy also has placekeepers in Sam Darnold and Nick Mullens. However, neither of them had the success that Cunningham, George, or Alex Smith had during their careers. While McCarthy could defeat both veterans in training camp, the key difference could be what’s on the field and the sidelines.

When McCarthy steps on the field, he’ll have a cast of weapons like what Culpepper and Mahomes had. Justin Jefferson and Jordan Addison are elite targets. T.J. Hockenson is one of the NFL’s best tight ends when he returns from injury. The offensive line looks set. The running game should be better whether it’s Aaron Jones or Ty Chandler this season or the addition of a top running back such as Oklahoma State’s Ollie Gordon II, Ohio State’s Quinshon Judkins, or Boise State’s Ashton Jeanty in next year’s draft.

Still, McCarthy’s success may come down to the continuity on the sidelines. While Mahomes has dealt with plenty of turmoil off the field, Reid has been the constant pushing him through. When Culpepper was developing, he had turnover at every level, from players to coaching staff and ownership.

That shouldn’t be a problem in Minnesota. O’Connell has already shown his coaching prowess by improving Kirk Cousins and getting the most out of Joshua Dobbs and Nick Mullens toward the end of last season. While his work with Cousins was impressive, we haven’t seen him with a hand-picked quarterback. He should get the opportunity that Green didn’t have with Culpepper.

Comparing the three situations, it may be O’Connell’s tenure that could decide whether McCarthy succeeds. If McCarthy takes to O’Connell’s teaching, it’s unlikely that O’Connell will be going anywhere but Minnesota for a long time. McCarthy could reach his full potential if that continuity is present, giving Minnesota their first home-grown franchise quarterback of the millennium.

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